A few weeks ago, Chelsea Dantonio was practicing at the Crag Burn Golf Club, her home course in East Aurora, when she ran into the club’s most celebrated member: Bills quarterback Josh Allen.
“I shook his hand,” Dantonio said last week at Crag Burn. “I couldn’t say anything else because I was so star-struck. That’s so pathetic. I saw him out here last week and just waved when the carts passed by. So I’m hoping one day we could play together.”
Some day, young local golfers might look up to Chelsea with the same rapt expression. She is, after all, the best young female player in the area, and she is looking to go somewhere no Buffalo woman has in more than two decades: the LPGA Tour. The last one was Patty Jordan, who retired in 1999.
Last Thursday, a day before her 24th birthday and one week after officially turning professional, Dantonio flew to California to take part in the first stage of LPGA Qualifying outside Palm Springs.
From Aug. 19-21, competitors will play an 18-hole round at three courses — the Dinah Shore and Pete Dye at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, and the Shadow Ridge layout in Palm Desert. After a cut, the field will play the fourth and final round at Dinah Shore, site of the ANA Inspiration, one of the LPGA majors.
There are about 340 women entered in Stage I, roughly a quarter of whom will advance to Stage II in October in Venice, Fla. The third stage, a two-week qualifying series, will be held in Alabama in December. A minimum of 45 women will get LPGA membership.
Sullivan: Repeat BDGA champ Anthony Delisanti chases that elusive perfect round of golf
“I’m really excited,” Dantonio said, “because I love desert golf. I’ve only played it a couple of times in my life, once in Las Vegas my senior year of high school and once in St. George, Utah, for a college event. I like it out there.
“I have to adjust to the heat because it’s 113 degrees out there. We do get to take carts, though.”
Dantonio’s parents, Chris and Michelle, will accompany her to California. Chris caddies for his daughter whenever possible. He was on her bag in June at the Women’s Porter Cup, when Chelsea finished in a tie for second place behind Thailand’s Kan Bunnabodee.
“I always look forward to her tournaments, and to traveling,” Chris said. ‘But I’m not looking forward to that heat. We have to be outside preparing. There’s no wind, no rain, and the only trees are palm trees. The low is usually around 90, the high around 115.”
The heat will be on, in more ways than one. There’s a lot of talent out there, as Chelsea found out during a fine four-year college career at Winthrop. She knows the odds of her getting an LPGA card on the first try are long. Many of the other women are more experienced, and they tend to be more athletic and longer off the tee.
But she and Chris are confident she can get through the first stage, which earns players conditional status on the Symetra Tour, the LPGA’s top development circuit. There’s also the Women’s All Pro Tour (WAPT), a three-year-old tour that feeds the Symetra.
At any rate, Dantonio is ready to begin the tortuous grind of an aspiring golf pro. She recently spoke with Peter Creighton, a Buffalo native who has been knocking around the minor-league pro circuit for eight years. She knows it will be a challenging road.
“Getting to Stage III and making (the LPGA) this year will be incredibly difficult,” she said. “So right now, I’m just trying to focus on one stage at a time. I want to get through this first stage and then if I get through the second stage, work from there.”
Sullivan: Amherst native Peter Creighton’s big step in pro golf earns pairing with Tony Romo
Her coach, Allen Miller, knows how challenging the pro golf life can be. Miller, 73, played on the PGA Tour for 15 years and was considered the second-best ball striker in the sport. But golf drove him to depression and the brink of suicide before he quit drinking alcohol and dedicated himself to being one of the top instructors in Western New York.
His wife, Cindy Miller, was Chelsea’s first teacher. Chris Dantonio sent her to Cindy when she was 9. That was shortly before Cindy, who played on the LPGA Tour from 1979-81, was named LPGA Teacher of the Year in 2010. But she soon determined that Dantonio was more suited to Allen.
“After a few years, she said, ‘Allen’s the brains, you need to switch over to him,’” Chelsea recalled. “I still consider her my coach, too. But we all understood that Allen, he’s the brains behind it all.”
Allen Miller saw something in this little girl. No doubt, Cindy saw it, too. Chelsea was driven, analytical, a little quiet, and a perfectionist. Just like Allen.
“Our personalities match each other,” said Allen, who teaches with Cindy at the Airport Driving Range and the Paddock Dome. “We’re the same personality, that total opposite of Cindy and Jamie (the Millers’ son, a top local amateur and one-time pro).
“We trade off students like that. If they’re more like me, the laid-back Ernie Els style person versus a Tiger Woods, I get them. Cindy still helps her some, but I help her with her swing 99 percent of the time.”
Dantonio jokes that she and Allen are “the same person.” The Millers consider her like family. In fact, Chelsea is the godmother for their son Matt’s baby girl, Maisy Marie, who was born last week.
Chelsea might have been a perfectionist, but she was far from perfect when Allen got her about 13 years ago. You couldn’t say she was a natural.
“Not in the swing,” Allen Miller said. “When she started off, she did not have a natural golf swing. She could hit the ball, but she had a flawed golf swing starting off, which a lot of kids do at 10.
First-round selection by Marlins and call from Derek Jeter gives Mack family the evening of a lifetime
“I still have videos of it. I saw her tenacity, her determination,” Miller said. “She was a quiet kid. I saw her perfectionism, too, early on. I said ‘We’ll see where it goes.’ Then she got to 12, 13, 14 and kept on going. She never gives up. That’s a big trait she has.”
Chris wouldn’t let Chelsea go on the golf course the first couple of years. Cindy Miller urged him to let her play, but Dantonio didn’t want to rush her into the competitive side of a sport that can crush the spirit of young people.
“I wanted her to be well-prepared,” said Chris, who was a star hockey player in high school. “I didn’t want her to fail and say, ‘I hate this sport’ and not continue. When the time came, I put her in tournaments I knew she could win, and then in some I knew she couldn’t win.
“The ones where she could win, it would give her confidence. When she struggled, she felt, ‘I’ve got to work even harder to get play with these girls that are better.’ I almost evenly dispersed it.”
It worked. Dantonio kept working and getting better. She won five Section VI titles at Lancaster High. At 13, she tied for fourth in the women’s BDGA championship. She won it by six strokes at 16. She played collegiately at Winthrop, where was the No. 1 player and an all-American scholar.
Two years ago, Dantonio finished second in the New York State women’s amateur in a playoff, coming from seven strokes back in the final round. Last year, she reached the semifinals of the prestigious Western Amateur. Last month, she and Jamie Miller won the New York amateur mixed team title at Brook-Lea in Rochester.
“My brother Matt (who plays high school golf as St. Mary’s) probably has more natural talent than I do, swing-wise, but I work harder,” she said. “I was overlooked by a lot of college coaches because my swing was a little different. It’s a lot prettier nowadays. It used to be pretty ugly, though it got the job done.”
Allen Miller had one of the sweetest swings in golf, and he helped Chelsea develop a smooth swing with exquisite tempo. That’s why he leapt into action when he saw that she had struggled in the first two rounds of the 2019 State Am at Lancaster Country Club.
“I looked at Cindy and said, ‘Chelsea is swinging the club too well to shoot scores like that. I’m going to go caddy for her tomorrow,’” Miller recalled.
Miller said he never caddies for his students, doesn’t believe in watching them compete. But this was different. He asked for permission to caddie for nine holes in the final round. He told organizers he would let her father take over after nine. They said it was OK.
Dantonio played so well, Miller stuck with her, “huffing and puffing” around the course. His goal was to make her focus on every shot and shoot in the 60s. She shot 65, a course record for women at Lancaster CC. But she lost to Jennifer Rosenberg on the second playoff hole.
Chelsea, who had putted out of her mind all day, missed a 5-footer on the first playoff hole.
“I still think about that putt often,” she said. “I really do. I swear. I don’t think about a lot of shots, but that one I do. I think I went too quick, because I pulled it right through the break, and I made those putts all day.”
She admitted she’s still coming to terms with the inevitable stumbles and failures of golf. Players at every level go through it. Miller tells her you can’t define yourself by your score. He said it was hard for her to accept that you can seek perfection on the practice range, but you’ll never get perfect results on the course.
“I didn’t handle it well after not winning the state this year (she tied for sixth). I kind of got a little depressed after that and the U.S. Am (she failed to qualify), because those are the ones I wanted the most this year.
“But you have to remind yourself that success isn’t a straight line. You’re going to have detours along the way.”
Dantonio said she can’t compare herself with the top women’s players in the world, like Nelly Korda, Lydia Ko and Lexi Thompson. It’s the next level of players, the ones who fought long and hard to make it to the tour, that she should emulate.
“I’ve got to remind myself to stop comparing myself to those handful of people who have the God-given talent,” she said. “Everyone’s path is different.”
Sullivan: This isn’t your grandparents’ croquet
Everyone in the Dantonio camp is keeping expectations low. She has a good chance to make it through the first stage. After that, it’s a minefield. Chris said it’s part of the learning process.
“She has great work ethic, great patience, great feel,” Chris said, “but she just doesn’t have the talent some of these other girls have, this innate God-given athletic ability with speed and strength. She has to outsmart and outwork them. She’s got to stay patient and her short game has to be great. And usually she does.
“She spends a lot of time chipping and putting. My gosh, she’ll spend at least a couple of hours just putting. And that’s where you score. She understands that’s where she has to be better than a lot of these girls. I mean, she’s 5-3, 125 pounds.”
Miller said Dantonio has worked hard to fine-tune her swing, which has made her longer off the tee. He said college golf can stunt a players’ development, because they spend so much time competing and little time making adjustments. He and Chelsea have done a lot of “maintenance work” since she graduated from Winthrop.
“She’s got all the things it takes,” Miller said. “She’s got it within. Some players can fortify that and move on with it. Some can’t quite do it. She’s got the opportunity now.
“It’s a lot harder than people think it is. Cindy and I were sitting talking one day and I said, ‘I never realized how hard it was to get how far I got.’ I never looked at it as work because I was moving toward my dream. Most of these kids, not only the ones we teach, but all over the country, don’t realize how hard it is.”
Sullivan: Fond memories linger at Cazenovia Park, a hot spot for area golf pros
Dantonio knows what she’s up against. She understands the risk in setting your expectations too high. Every golfer feels pressure. Phil Mickelson is working on his breathing. Last year, Dantonio played in a pro-am with an unknown named Sofia Popov. Two months later, Popov won the British Open.
Her only expectation is getting through Stage I next week.
“I really, truly think I can do it,” she said, “as long as I stay calm and play my game. I’ll definitely be nervous. I’m already starting to get more nervous. I felt really confident about it before, but you also have to be realistic.”
Money is always an issue. It cost $2,500 to enter the LPA qualifying. Chelsea, who studied health management in college, did some math and figured it take $44,000 a year just to play professional golf. Her father is a dentist and her mother a teacher. There’s support, but it only goes so far.
Most of the other women hit it farther. But it’s about more than distance in golf. When she’s on, she can score with anyone. She has the work ethic of a perfectionist and the wisdom that comes from knowing that it’s unreachable.
“When I’m struggling, I’ve got to figure it out,” she said. “I’ll text Allen, ‘OK, what if it’s this, what if it’s that?’ Sometimes it’s not the best thing to do, because maybe you’re overthinking it. But I can’t stop. I can’t quit. I’m not a quitter.
“As long as I keep improving, I’ll give it a go.”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.